Gone forth Readers mentioned that the story about the never-ending task of painting has been attached to other bridges, notably the Golden Gate Bridge and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Since both were built many years after the Forth Bridge, it is possible that local knowledge and pride provoked a transfer of location, rather than independent creation.
Andrew Haynes responded to my question about how long it will take for the cliché about eternally painting the Forth Bridge to die: “A survey of other popular clichés suggests it may take a very long time. We still talk about sending people to Coventry, even though it is nearly 350 years since the English Civil War, when Royalists captured in Birmingham were sent to the Parliamentarian stronghold of Coventry. Other outdated place-related clichés that remain in popular use include carrying coals to Newcastle and shipshape and Bristol fashion. And dozens of other clichés have survived for centuries even though users often no longer understand their literal meanings: hoist by one’s own petard, beating about the bush, Hobson’s choice, loose cannon, and beyond the pale.”
Blue murder An accidental phrase in my piece last week resulted in some criticism from Canadians. I’d written, “This idiom is largely restricted to Commonwealth countries. North Americans prefer to cry bloody murder.” It was north that roused them to complain, quite rightly — since Canada is a Commonwealth country my second sentence contradicted the first.
It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, which may have contributed to its rarity in modern English. We also have other words to express the same idea, such as indescribable and inexpressible. Some writers have chosen it as an alternative to ineffable, something that’s unutterable, too great for description in words:
Shall I not crown them with immortal praise
Whom I have loved, who have given me, dared with me
High secrets, and in darkness knelt to see
The inenarrable godhead of delight?
The Great Lover, by Rupert Brooke, 1914.
It’s ultimately from Latin enarrare, to recount or describe fully, whose root has bequeathed us narrate and its relatives. Classical Latin scholars attached the negative prefix in- to make the adjective inenarrabilis for something that’s inexpressible or which defies description. In the fifteenth century, the adjective inenarrable based on this arrived in English via French.
More prosaically, some authors have borrowed it to demonstrate the breadth of their vocabularies or to enpurple their prose:
A long draught of the corrosive nectar, to be savoured with the inenarrable contentment which the divine fruit of such a pilgrimage deserved, washed gratifyingly around Mr Uniatz’s atrophied taste buds, flowed past his tonsils like Elysian vitriol, and swilled into his stomach with the comforting tang of boiling acid. He liked it.
The Saint in Miami, by Leslie Charteris, 1941.
Costume not required You may remember that back in May I discussed the craze called planking, in which you lie stiffly horizontal on top of some object, the odder the better, and get your photograph taken to prove you’ve done it. This was followed by owling, in which you had to do nothing more taxing than crouch on your haunches and stare into the middle distance like the bird. Then there was the short-lived stunt called horsemanning, in which two people pose so that it looks as though one person’s head has been removed and put somewhere else. Reports say that this was prompted by the posting online of an old photo from the 1920s showing such a scene (though the accompanying suggestion that this was a craze of the time would seem to be incorrect, as I can find no reference to it anywhere in the historical record). Its name — from the story of the Headless Horseman in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow — is new. Part four of this sequence of activities is batmanning, a name and action derived from the fictional character and from the mammals. To be a batmanner, you suspend yourself upside down with your toes hooked over some object, such as a street sign, a door or a wall.
Going, going, withdrawn A British legal property website scored a PR success this week through spicing up a press release about the poor state of the housing market with a word that its founder had invented: gazanging. Many British newspapers used the word in their reports of the release, which claimed that one in four house sellers were pulling out at the last minute, either because they couldn’t find a suitable property themselves or were worried about the state of the market. The new word is a play on the much older gazump, known mainly in British and Australian English, in which a seller accepts an offer to buy but abandons the buyer before the legal formalities are completed in favour of a better offer (it’s probably from Yiddish gezumph, to overcharge or cheat). The new word blends gazump with (left) hanging. It’s reminiscent of another blend that was created during the 1980s: gazunder (from gazump and under — nothing to do with the colloquial term for the china receptacle that goes under the bed). In this bit of trickery, a buyer reduces the offered price near the date of exchange of contracts when there is little chance of the seller finding another purchaser, forcing the seller either to accept the lower bid or abandon the sale.
Q From Jo Leath: In Canada we recently lost the Leader of the Opposition, Jack Layton. Describing the tributes from diverse sources, the phrase repeated in TV, radio and newspapers was of all political stripes. After a few days I began to wonder whether we are a nation of zebras and tigers and pyjama manufacturers, and I have to ask where this idea of political stripes originated.
A First off, it’s not new, by any means. The earliest I’ve so far unearthed is in a speech to the US Congress in 1852 but it must be older. Commentators have found it a useful phrase to mean a person’s affiliations. It’s now more popular than it has ever been.
Over the past decade, the easiest way of bonding with an American of any political stripe has been to make a joke about the French or praise Blair.
Daily Telegraph, 4 Sep. 2011.
It would be good to think that the source was an animal association, but the only link of that sort which turns up in the record are idiomatic references to a cat of a different stripe. That phrase different stripe is also common and shows that political stripe is a special case of stripe in a related figurative sense. Like political stripe, stripe by itself is known from US politics of the 1850s onwards in the same sense.
Where it comes from is — for a change — indisputable. It derives from a slangy term of the 1820s onwards for the narrow strips of coloured material sewn to military uniforms to indicate rank, such as the three stripes of a sergeant.
Although I used to wear the colonel’s livery, yet I had the full corporal’s stripes on my coat.
London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew, 1861.
In the armed services, a person’s stripes were a mark of his status or position. Stripe soon shifted colloquially to refer generally to a person’s views or affiliations, or to his type or category, not only in politics but also in religion and other matters (criminals of all stripes, hero of a different stripe, a guest artist of some stripe) and more recently has extended to inanimate objects (magazines of every stripe, well-designed games of any stripe, folk music in many stripes).
• On 14 September, the Advertiser in Adelaide had an article entitled “Snacks to cure your cravings”, reports Julia Miller: “Start your day with a good breakfast or cure your afternoon cravings with the specials at the supermarkets this week. Foodland is selling Quilton toilet rolls 6pk for $2.99 ...” High in fibre?
• Henry Peacock saw a report on the website of the Lancashire Evening Post website on 14 September: “The spokesman said: ‘A man and a baby were found deceased at the address.’ Residents said the man, who is believed to be in his 40s, confirmed police and ambulance were at the house.”
• The Financial Times of 17 September confused Jacob Morgan by saying that “An Oxford University spin-off started in a researcher’s garden shed on Monday marks a milestone in its 51-year history as it joins the FTSE 250 index of leading medium-sized listed companies.”
• Hyphenation problems, in the Wall Street Journal of 16 September: “The Emmys keep buying what ‘Mad Men’ is selling. The 1960s Madison Avenue saga won its fourth consecutive best drama series award Sunday, while big-hearted romp ‘Modern Family’ claimed its second best comedy trophy.” Joel Karasik felt that it was about that that they started giving awards for second best.
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